Help Students Learn Better: Develop Their Critical Thinking Skills

Peer learning platform

The Following is an Excerpt from our eBook: The Definitive Guide to Peer Assessment

When University of Chicago professor Benjamin Bloom and his collaborators penned the inaugural Taxonomy of Educational Objectives in 1956, the team presciently identified the orders of learning best suited to succeed in the modern world, and placed them atop an iconic six-level pyramid of educational attainment. 

From basic knowledge to comprehension, application and analysis of ideas, Bloom’s six orders of learning positioned critical and evaluative thinking skills at the summit of learning. Meanwhile, the qualities that describe the lowest orders of learning—remembering and understanding—form the backbone of most summative, high-stakes assessment.

Originally created as an assessment aid to help classify educational goals, Bloom’s has become a foundational pedagogical model used for curriculum design, setting learning objectives and designing classroom activities.

“Bloom’s has always been important,” says Numer. “But now I think there's a higher standard for us out there. I think professors today want to come in and deliver a good course and know that they've set out to do what they were trying to do. That isn't always what necessarily happens, but if you're purposeful about it, Bloom’s can help you understand whether the material is getting into students’ brains in a way that is changing their perspectives. If you get to that level, then they've done critical thinking.”

Bloom’s can also help both students elevate metacognition—the process of thinking about one’s own thinking. When students start thinking about metacognition, they’re better able to transfer what they’ve learned to new contexts and situations, a skill that’s increasingly in demand in today’s knowledge economy.

At the University of Connecticut, John Redden, an assistant professor in the department of physiology and neurobiology, uses Bloom’s taxonomy in class to show his students what they need to know to succeed. “I tell them that they all know what a hammer is, what lumber is, what nails are—but that doesn’t mean they know how to build a house,” he told education writer Philip Preville in a 2018 interview. “And I tell them that by the end of this course, they ought to be able to build a house. That’s the goal they need to set for themselves: to be able to explain how all the parts come together and work together.”

Practically speaking, many faculty use Bloom’s in three ways: to set learning outcomes, structure classroom activities and to assess progress. 

“I tell them that they all know what a hammer is, what lumber is, what nails are—but that doesn’t mean they know how to build a house.”

In terms of setting learning outcomes, Bloom’s taxonomy helps instructors think clearly about what, exactly, students will learn in their class and which orders of learning they will use to help their students get there. When professors communicate those objectives upfront, students are given a clearer view of the path to their ultimate destination, making the incremental assignments along the way more meaningful. In Redden’s case, establishing weekly learning objectives “makes the conversations go better when the students are struggling. I can point to the objectives and identify the things they should be able to do. It helps students focus their studies.” With clear learning outcomes set and established with students, Bloom’s can then be used to plan homework and in-class or remote assignments that line up with whichever order of learning an instructor is trying to achieve. Finally, Bloom’s can be used to help faculty create assessment questions or assignments that reveal a student’s overall comprehension and mastery of a subject, tailored to the learning outcomes that have been established for the course.

How a professor opts to execute on their course objectives is another matter entirely, and something that will continue to evolve, especially as higher ed wrestles with learning tactics post-pandemic. For many, traditional summative assessments are no longer really possible in a remote environment where timed, monitored exams may be next to impossible to administer. In its place, some faculty have turned to open-book online exams, asynchronous assignments, research projects and ‘epic finales’ that allow students to apply knowledge gleaned throughout the semester in a creative way.

For students, the shift away from high-stakes summative assessment could very well be a positive consequence of the global pandemic. Beyond forcing faculty to rethink how they’re assessing students in general, an increasingly remote learning environment is well-suited to the types of ongoing formative assessments that have been proven to help students access Bloom’s higher-order thinking skills. 

As collaborative, low-stakes assignments become more commonplace, techniques like peer assessment may very well become the most impactful way to deliver the return on an education investment that today’s students require.

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Chris Palazzo
Marketer & Educator. Blending the two here at Kritik